Title: Breaking Away

Rating: T

Timeline: Sometime in the latter part of Season 4. Follows "Just Along for the Ride," but goes AU from there.

Summary: After solving a case that brings him to the attention of the FBI, Castle pursues new opportunities to meet old goals while addressing imbalances in his professional and personal lives.

Disclaimer: I do not own Castle or the characters used in this story.

A/N: "Just Along for the Ride" sets the context for this story. Characters introduced in that story reappear here, so reading the earlier fic will help this one make sense. If you don't want to read that, imagine that Castle solved a high-profile case in which the FBI was involved, but Captain Gates disavowed the significance of his contributions at a highly publicized press conference.

A/N2 (Revised after completion): This is a long story, focused on developing some of the themes, relationships, and plotlines from the show. Please be warned, though, that it starts rough - Castle's in a bad place after the events of Just Along for the Ride, and he's pretty fired up in the first chapter. This causes some people to turn away early. I'd ask you to give it three chapters before deciding whether to continue.

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12th Precinct, Thursday afternoon

"This is ridiculous. I'm going to talk to her," Beckett says as she looks up from her desk in frustration and glances towards Captain Gates' office. It's early Thursday afternoon, two days since the team has been working on a case involving a dead body found in dumpster in an alley off Custer Avenue. Desperate to get some traction on their case, some new lead to follow, the team is anxious to see if Castle has any suggestions. Unfortunately, it's been seven days since Gates' suspended Castle's consulting privileges at the 12th Precinct.

That Thursday morning a week ago had started well. Beckett had slept deeply and without disturbance, despite the disastrous press conference on Wednesday. In that conference, Captain Gates opted to deny Castle's participation in the Cartwright Case, a high-profile investigation that started with a double homicide and led to significant other charges, most notably jury tampering, extortion, and kidnapping. And anyone participating in the investigation – the NYPD, the FBI, the ME's office, or the DA – knew that Castle was personally responsible for saving the kidnapping victim and the key contributor to subsequent investigations.

Gates' statement at the press conference was a stunning betrayal, all the more so since it was certain to be contradicted by subsequent media leaks. Following the press conference, Castle had slipped out of the precinct before Beckett could commiserate with him. She had called Castle repeatedly, getting only his voicemail. She had texted, too, and hoped that the lack of a response meant that he was spending time with Alexis or enjoying a well-earned early night. Finally, throwing caution and maybe propriety to the wind, she'd made a late-night visit to the loft.

Castle's Loft, 11:30 PM, 8 Days Earlier

Beckett shifted from foot to foot after knocking on the door to the loft. That she was on unstable emotional ground was apparent from the absurd amount of thought she had put into her knock – loud enough to be heard, not so loud as to wake the household – ridiculous, she thought.

Just as she was reconsidering whether she'd applied the optimal amount of force to her strikes on the door, it opened to reveal a groggy Castle.

"Sorry, I fell asleep on the couch. Living up to my boast proved more taxing than I thought," Castle explained as he ushered her inside.

"So, you weren't just spinning a line when you said that you were going to sit in front of the fire with your feet kicked up, drinking wine while you counted your blessings?" Beckett paraphrased with a grin.

"Well, it was all part of the story. But, it sounded good, so I thought I'd give it a try," Castle grinned, but he didn't quite manage to hide his melancholy. Glad that she knew him well enough to see it, Beckett was also glad that he had provided an opportunity for her to say what she'd wanted to say earlier that day.

"I'm sorry that we didn't have the chance to talk at the precinct. I was so shocked by that … infuriating nonsense, that by the time I saw you, the elevator was closing," she began, slowly. Even with the gentle lead-in, Castle had begun to turn away. She knew she was at risk of losing him, either to his warranted dejection from earlier in the day or to false bravado to hide his dismay. So, she decided to play dirty, using a trick learned from her father.

"You left before I had a chance to give you this," Beckett said, withdrawing a closed hand from her pocket and holding it out to Castle, ready to drop something into his palm. Castle had looked at her curiously, then gamely held out his waiting hand.

Beckett opened her hand, but it was empty. Completing her ruse, she used her empty hand to grasp Castle's, while bringing her other hand up to complete the clasp. "You left before I could tell you how brilliant you were on this case." Castle tried to look away, but Beckett maneuvered her head to stay in his line of vision and squeezed his hand, getting him to refocus back on her. "Forget Gates – we'll settle her tab later. You and I both know that you saved Brooke, you broke Manelli, and you rolled it up and hung it on Cartwright."

"Do you know what I was thinking about when you left?" Beckett continued. "I was thinking about how many people would have been hurt if you hadn't left your meeting to join us Monday morning. Such a simple decision, but as a result you helped people, saved people. Thank you."

Castle stared at their hands and said nothing for a few moments. Then, taking a deep breath, he looked up at her. Though he didn't smile, he seemed lighter, happier. "I know I shouldn't need to hear it, but I can't deny that I feel better now," Castle said. "Thank you."

After releasing his hand, Beckett took a half-step back and tried to change the tone. "Go get some rest, Castle. You've clearly earned it, and it's time that you reintroduced yourself to your mattress after dallying with the precinct chair and your couch. Get some sleep and we'll start fresh in the morning."

"Beckett, I'm so tired that I'm not going to avail myself of any of the ample innuendo opportunities you provided. Rain check?" he said with an enormous yawn and back-popping stretch.

"You're just drawing down your excess balance," Beckett replied with a wink as she headed for the door, "Goodnight, Castle."

"Goodnight, Detective," he replied with a smile.

As she walked down the corridor to the elevator, Beckett felt an uncommon sense of satisfaction. Her past, especially lately, wasn't littered with examples of handling personal conversations well. But this visit was an exception. She'd shelved her misgivings, sought out her partner, and provided a heartfelt thank you without worrying about walls or precedents or expectations. That he so clearly benefited from hearing it was proof that her effort was worthwhile. She was glad that he hadn't answered his phone or responded to her texts, as that turning point led to this tiny, perfect moment.

She should have expected that it would all fall apart within hours.

The Old Haunt, 8:00 PM, 7 Days Earlier

"Where's Castle?" asked Lanie as she approached the booth that Beckett, Ryan, and Esposito had claimed. "I didn't see him behind the bar. Is he down in his office?"

"That's the question of the day," Beckett said, looking a little worried. "We haven't seen him since this morning," says Beckett. "He was already at the precinct when I arrived," Beckett recalls, remembering the cup of coffee waiting on her desk. She had looked around to offer her thanks, and felt her heart sink when she saw him in Gates' office. The door was closed, but she hadn't needed to hear them to know that Gates and Castle were having a heated discussion that was escalating quickly. Gates looked furious, her flushed face looking fierce as her hand gestures slashed the air before her. Castle, on the other side of the desk, affected a proud, haughty look that was probably calculated to further antagonize Gates.

The confrontation had built to a crescendo until Gates stood quickly from her chair, slammed papers down on her desk, and thrust out a hand that pointed at the door. Castle rose slowly, buttoned his blazer with exaggerated calm, and walked out of the office, down the corridor, and into the stairwell. He had not returned.

"He was so angry when he left Gates' office this morning. So angry." Beckett recalled.

Concerned, Lanie looks toward Ryan and Esposito to gauge their reactions. "I wasn't there yet," Esposito said in response to her inquisitive look. Lanie turned to Ryan, who looked a little nervous.

"I got there just as he was leaving Gates' office," Ryan said. "Look, Castle's the writer, not me," he struggled. "He would have a better analogy than this, but it's what I thought of when I saw him. Have you ever been outside on a hot summer day and seen the shimmer over a road? You know, when the heat waves rising from the asphalt distort your vision? That's how he was when he left her office – the fury was just shimmering from him."

"And no word from him since then?" Lanie asked. "Is he even coming tonight?"

"We tried to call and text, but he only replied once, around lunchtime," Beckett said while fishing her phone from her pocketbook. She held the screen up to Lanie, displaying Castle's short text: Everyone up for the Haunt at 8? Explain then.

"I can't say that I blame him for being angry," Lanie said. "I don't know what in the hell your boss thought she was doing." After a pause, she looks around and drops her voice. "I've had nightmares about this," she confessed. "Do you remember how close we were to leaving that crime scene? We all wanted to, but Castle held us back. I get sick when I think about that little girl and what could've happened to her."

Just as Lanie's confession threatened to pull them all back into dark ruminations, Castle appeared out of nowhere with a tray laden with six beers, four cocktails, five empty glasses, a bucket of ice, and a bottle of exceptionally expensive scotch.

"Sorry, you'll have to order for yourselves," he joked weakly as he transferred the items to the table and handed the empty tray to a passing waitress.

"Rough day there, partner?" Beckett asked with false joviality.

Castle looked across the table at her. After a blank look, he huffed. Then chuckled. Then burst out laughing.

"Uh, Castle, honey, are you okay?" Lanie asked tentatively after a few minutes.

Quieting himself with some effort, Castle sighed, "What a day. What a hell of a day. I'm not sure why I laughed – I guess it's a default reaction, or maybe it was the only emotion left after this week." With that, he plinked some ice into a glass and poured himself a generous measure of scotch.

"If it's any consolation," Ryan offered, "you missed a thrilling day of paperwork. Not exactly a red letter day."

"Well," Castle offered, "I had paperwork of my own. And, I'll miss any paperwork that you all have for the next month."

"A month? What's going on, Castle?" Esposito questioned around a mouthful of beer, while Beckett looked on in wary silence.

"I'm setting new precedents, new records," Castle replied with a mocking celebratory fist pump. "Despite being an unpaid volunteer, today was the first day of my one-month suspension."

Seeing the shocked stares around the table, Castle continued. "I had already asked for two weeks away to tend to some writing. I think Gates wanted me to feel a bit of a sting, so she tacked on an extra two weeks."

"For what?!" Beckett railed suddenly. "Solving a headline-making case? Blowing everyone away in the interrogation room? Saving Brooke?" Castle seemed to cheer at the vigorously nodding of heads from the others at the table while Beckett spoke.

"For 'undermining authority' and 'negatively affecting the morale of the precinct,'" Castle stated in an imitation of Gates voice.

"You can't be serious," Beckett said.

"Look," Castle said, as he visibly tried to school his emotions, "this was inevitable after the press conference. I just thought it would take a little longer. But the Ledger called her this morning to get her reaction to the statements of 'several unnamed sources in and out of law enforcement' who dispute her representation of my role on the Cartwright case."

"So, she's punishing you because her BS from the press conference is falling apart?" Esposito asked.

"Paula's involved. My agent," he answered the unasked question from Lanie's curious look. "I'd given her contact information to Dr. Eaton to make sure that Brooke was protected from the media. When Gates heard about Paula's involvement, she assumed that I was pushing the story. Hearing Martinez console me this morning about 'getting screwed by the boss on national television' certainly didn't improve her mood."

"Dr. Eaton was one of the Ledger's sources?" Beckett asked. This made sense, as she would be the most sensitive about Castle getting recognition for his efforts on behalf of Dr. Eaton's daughter Brooke.

"She was one, and someone at the FBI was another. Probably Britton, at Wilson's direction," Castle says, while taking a generous pull from his glass.

"How do you know that?" Esposito asked. "Another Sherlock moment?"

"No," Castle huffed a laugh. "I spent the morning with Paula, finishing my Monday meeting. Then I spent the rest of the day with the Feds."

"What did she want?" "What did they want?" "What meeting?" "What?!"

"Excellent," Castle chuckled. "Four for four," he said, referring to having prompted a question from everyone at once. "I guess we'll cover the FBI first?" he says as all detectives nod in interest.

"I was still steaming away from my little confrontation with Captain Gates when Agent Wilson called," Castle stated to say, before Beckett interrupted him.

"Little?" Beckett asked with a tone of disbelief. "Castle, I'm not sure when I've seen you so upset. And she was about to stroke out right there, based on the look on her face."

"Yeah, well, that's just round one. I think we'll have some interesting discussions in the near future." Castle said with a smile.

"You mean, after a month," Ryan said, though his intonation sounded more like a question than a statement.

"Mark my words: within two weeks, three tops, she'll reach out to me," Castle responded. "Probably on the excuse of some case or some administrative need, but she'll try for rapprochement. She might have even dinged me for a month's suspension so that she could play nice and drop the last week later, as a sign of 'good will.'" Castle finished, having put an embittered tone and air quotes on the last two words.

"This isn't some fantasy where we're supposed to be suddenly incapable of doing our jobs without you around, is it?" Esposito asked with a tone of menace. Castle noticed that Ryan was looking a little put out, too, and opted not to check Beckett's reaction.

"You want to play hardball, 'Sito? Alright, let's play." Castle's voice was eager, and toned down the direct challenge offered by his words.

"One: this team is better with me than without me. The data doesn't lie, and I've seen it. The effect on case closures is small, but it's statistically significant and it's positive." Having noted Esposito's look of confusion, Castle chuckled. "Not everyone is a fan of my presence at the precinct – obviously – so data is compiled and sent up the chain. I manage to obtain those files," he said with a sly grin, "and I have my best man analyze the data."

"Alexis?" Lanie asked, with an upraised eyebrow.

"Alexis," Castle confirmed with a proud smile. "But the better story from the data isn't total closure rate, it's case duration. Putting up with having me underfoot has significantly reduced your average time to close a case. We've looked at this both in relation to when I'm not around and in comparison to the marginal contribution from adding an average, paid detective to an existing, three-person team."

In response to Ryan's inquisitive look, Castle grinned and said "I do my homework." Then, schooling his face to look serious again, he continued.

"Two: the precinct in general and Homicide in particular benefits directly from my presence," Castle stated.

The detectives at the table recognized Castle's gambit, suspected that he has something unexpected ready to refute the objections that he's trying to provoke. Ryan took the initiative but opted to wade in gently. "How so, Castle? It sounds like you're talking about something other than fame for inspiring fictional characters."

"I don't mean this to be as harsh as it might sound," Castle started, "but for detectives, you three can be pretty naive about non-criminal matters." Receiving only inquisitive looks from the detectives (and a smirking nod from Lanie that wasn't missed by others at the table), he continued. "I've been here for more than three years now. I started after the onset of the recession, but the economy has still been sluggish. City and state tax revenues have been down. Every other precinct has had some significant combination of budget reductions, support staff reductions, or wage and hiring freezes. Haven't you wondered the touch on the 12th has been so light?"

Castle paused to allow some thought before he continued. "The last things that Bob or the Commissioner want me to write about are the demoralizing aspects of working for the city, about laying off or hamstringing the people who protect the public from criminals."

Castle leaned forward to drive his points home. "Gates knows all of this. She knows about my contribution to your cases, and she knows the halo effect of my writing provides insurance against budget and staff reductions. And she's not the only one. Other captains know the score, as do the officers looking to transfer into the 12th."

"So, trust me. When the Cartwright case starts to fade from memory, she's going to take a hard look at her situation and come calling. I'm looking forward to round two of our discussion." There was no mistaking the gleam in Castle's eye when he offered that final point.

"You know, Castle, I hadn't really thought about our budget. I'm not sure that I'm comfortable knowing that I'm getting off easier than other officers," Beckett offered, looking ill at ease.

"Comfortable or not, there's nothing you can do about it short of kicking me out. It's politics. It's as likely to bite you as benefit you. If I embarrass the department or offend the Commissioner, you can be sure that things will change quickly. That's one of the factors that's constrained my natural ebullience these last few years," Castle said with a wink.

"Nice to know that you've been so muted during your time with us," Beckett replied.

"So, you're going to hang out with the Feds until Gates calls you back, is that the plan?" Lanie asked, curious about getting the conversation back on track.

"As I mentioned, they called this morning, and I went to their offices in the afternoon. Wilson said that they wanted to go over my statement. We did that, and they asked for more details, but we finished in less than an hour. The rest of the afternoon was a sales pitch – no pretense about 'opportunities' this time, just a long discussion and meetings with different people in the New York office," Castle said, taking another drink.

"You met others besides Wilson and Britton?" Beckett asked, taking care to craft a question that mentioned Agent Britton without drawing attention to her interest in whether the attractive agent had again secured time with Castle.

"The afternoon started with the Dans, but I must've met 10, 15 other agents." Castle said. Reacting to Lanie's curious look, he clarified, "Dan Wilson and Danielle Britton – the Dans."

"How cute," Esposito offered gruffly.

"They don't think so," Castle said with a smile, prompting a laugh from Ryan.

"Are you going to take them up on their offer?" Ryan asked, forging in again when others seemed hesitant to do so.

"I'm thinking about it. You all remember Jordan Shaw?" Castle asked, provoking nods from the detectives. "She's at the headquarters in DC this week, so I'm going down to meet with her tomorrow. I'm bringing Alexis along, too, so that we can make a long weekend of it."

"But Castle," Lanie said, "why pursue the Feds if you think Gates will cave in two weeks? You getting tired of us?"

"For a number of reasons," Castle started carefully, then stopped. After thinking for a moment, he started again, "Two to share now, and others we can maybe talk about after DC. First, I'm working on a little case of my own. The Feds might be able to help me with that. Second, I'm not sure if I can return to the 12th even if Gates asks."

"What? You just told us about your contributions and the budget stuff, why couldn't you come back?" Esposito fired off.

"Something strange is going on with Bob and the Commissioner. I'm sure you noticed that Bob didn't exactly leap to my defense during the press conference. And how weird was it that the Commissioner didn't field the last question of the conference? Bob hasn't called since then either, which is out of character for him," Castle said.

"It might be nothing – maybe Bob's busy, maybe the political winds have shifted and he's creating some distance between us – but he's been my key both times I've had to bludgeon my way into precinct. Talking to the Feds gives me some leverage in case there's something odd going on, and it at least buys me some time to figure things out," Castle concluded.

"I guess that makes sense," Beckett said grudgingly, "but what was that bit about a case of your own?"

"That's not really something that I want to get into right now," Castle evaded. "Don't," he said with palm upraised after noticing that Beckett was preparing to ask more questions about it.

Looking annoyed, Beckett pursued the other thought that bothered her. "So, you were going to take two weeks off to write before any of this started? I thought you were ahead of schedule on your writing."

"I am. Or I was. I've had an idea for a book kicking around and I need to get it out of my head before I start losing it. I've got it outlined, I just need some time to focus to get it onto the page," Castle explained. "After next week, Alexis is on a school trip to the Southwest for a week, and then she's on school break for a week that she'll spend with Meredith. So, I've got two weeks to knuckle down and get this done."

"You can write a book in two weeks?" Lanie asked, impressed.

"It's pretty clear in my head. We'll see what happens when I try to push it out. Two uninterrupted weeks should get me there. Or at least mostly uninterrupted, because, you know. Meredith." Castle said with a shrug.

Starting another beer, Esposito chimed in. "But Castle, how are you going to write if you're separated from our inspirational influence?" Ryan chuckled and the two clinked the necks of their beer bottles together.

"It's not a Nikki Heat book," Castle started, causing all faces at the table to look up at him. "It's not Storm, either," he said, answering Beckett's unasked question. "It's not even a mystery, or thriller, or even a Richard Castle book. It's a novel, a story of dislocation and a search for redemption. I signed the contract with Davison Publishing this morning."

"What about Nikki Heat?" Lanie asked in a curious tone somewhere between betrayed and offended.

"Like Beckett said, I'm current in my contract with Black Pawn," Castle said, pausing to take another drink.

"Let me ask you this," Castle said, addressing the group in general while focusing on Beckett. "If Lanie and I were dating and we walked into this bar and she said 'I don't want you flirting with anyone here except Kate, because I know she's out of your league,' what would I do?"

"Hit on Beckett," both Ryan and Esposito replied immediately, in unison. Beckett caught Lanie's eye and guessed that both of them were stuck on the 'If Lanie and I were dating' portion of Castle's hypothetical.

"Exactly. How is that all of you know this about me but my ex-wife doesn't?" Castle asked. "My Black Pawn contract covers only mystery and thriller genres, as defined in the contract. So, I'm a free agent outside of those genres. And, if anything I write outside achieves certain sales or award benchmarks, I can opt out of my contract with Black Pawn and take Nikki with me."

"Is that the goal, to walk away from Black Pawn?" Beckett increasingly wary of this development.

"This new book is a totally new direction for me, and I'm not sure it will work out. But if it does, I'll terminate my Black Pawn contract. I don't like being underestimated or taken advantage of, and it feels like Black Pawn put me in a box that I can't escape. I might be happy to stay, but things are going to change."